Film fights back
by John Henshall

The APS cassette.

Thirty years ago, products such as calculators, faxes, personal computers, VCRs and cellular telephones did not exist. Today they have become 'how did we ever do without them' products.

Thirty years ago, photography was a mature industry and the advances made since then have been comparatively modest. Features such as autofocus and built-in exposure control have become the norm, it's true, but to many consumers - who simply want to record their family memories without any fuss - cameras remain a user un-friendly mystery. To them, luck seems to play a significant part in the uncertainty of picture making.

Recorded sound, another mature industry, has been with us for over a hundred years. In the late 'fifties, 'unbreakable' microgroove LPs displaced fragile shellac 78s and brought with them major improvements in sound quality and playing time. LPs lasted until records changed from being boring big and black to sophisticated small and silver. At first the changeover was slow but it is now virtually complete, with almost total acceptance of the Compact Disc format, even to the extent of duplicating established vinyl record collections with the same titles on CD. They give us major feature and quality improvements, coupled with greater convenience. Audio CDs are digital, though the user need never be aware of their digital form. Most importantly, the record manufacturers have been able to persuade us all to pay premium prices for this new technology.

What a boost something like that would give to the ailing photographic industry, ever complaining about the depressed state of the market. In fact, more pictures are being taken today than ever before, though almost one roll in twenty still turns joy to disappointment. With a worldwide sale of about two billion rolls of film a year, almost one roll in twenty - about a hundred million rolls a year - have double exposed, blank or fogged frames.

It's not good for photography when fond memories are replaced by the sadness and frustration of failure to record it on film. It's still too easy for the leader not to attach itself correctly inside the camera, resulting in a blank film. No wonder so many consumers continue to balk at the thought of loading a film into their camera. Using a camera is inextricably linked with ineptitude for many would-be users, who do not think of photography as an enjoyable pastime. It's time to use late twentieth century technology to turn picture making into the delight it should be. Anything which enhances consumer delight must be good for the photographic industry.

Simulated comparison: the APS cassette alongside a standard 35mm cassette.

Unfortunately, when it comes to introducing new formats the photographic industry has a bad record. Remember 126, 110 and Disc? Meanwhile, most consumer cameras continue to use 35mm. The failures of 35mm's erstwhile contenders have been acute embarrassments to their proponents. Hopefully the manufacturers who introduced them have learned by their mistakes.

Canon, Fuji, Kodak, Minolta and Nikon have now come together in an alliance to give photography a shot in the arm with a new format being planned like a military operation. This in itself is incredible - five major manufacturers agreeing on the way forward. In how many other industries could that happen? The new system is called the Advanced Photo System.

The stakes are high. If they get this one wrong, it could turn out to be the last major development in consumer film and camera technology before digital takes over. But there's plenty of life left in silver halide, a superb image recording system with a century and a half of evolution. Got right, it could hold digital at bay for quite a few years more. And though we look to a digital future, it's sobering to remind ourselves that much of the population of the third world has yet to take its first photograph.

The APS system is due to be launched in Spring 1996 but, to ensure that processing laboratories are ready from the outset, the photofinishing equipment is being launched now, in the hope that everything will be in place for the roll out of the entire system. Now is the time of those of you who are laboratory owners and believe in the future of silver halide to get out your cheque books and invest - if that is the correct word - in APS. You are being asked to do this on a series of promises now being backed up with demonstrations of laboratory equipment seen in action.

Eastman Kodak held simultaneous presentations in Dallas, Paris and Tokyo on 19 October 1995 - the first demonstrations of APS to the trade press. Chip Shop attended the Paris event where a bullish Kodak team, partnered by Gretag, Noritsu and Systel, demonstrated their new lab equipment. Kodak seemed a little frustrated that the agreement between the APS System Developing Companies (SDCs) only enabled them to show us the photofinishing equipment at this stage.

The Agfa event, in Leverkusen, Germany on 20 October, was somewhat less action packed. Four of the five SDCs are Japanese, one American. There are no Europeans. Agfa - along with forty-odd others - are licensees of the system. Agfa's Friedrich Hujer felt that the SDC may now be feeling that it was a mistake not to have Agfa on board from the beginning but made light of the situation, saying, "Even adopted children can thrive." Agfa emphasised that existing 35mm photofinishing products can be adapted, unlike processing equipment for the Disc system which required a completely new processing line.

Fuji waited until PMA/PIE to unveil its plans but is rumoured to have a stunning APS emulsion in the wings. Those who have seen early examples of Fuji's big enlargements have been astounded by the quality.

APS is a hybrid system which owes a lot to electronic technology which is being used to bring innovation, without hassle, to film-based photography. Like 35mm, APS uses a film cartridge - Kodak prefer to call it a cassette - though it is slightly smaller than 135 size. This holds a roll of strong but thin polyethylene naptholate (PEN) based film, instead of the cellulose triacetate film used for 35mm. The film is 24mm wide and will be available in 15, 25 or 40 exposure lengths. A very thin transparent magnetic coating on its back enables the magnetic recording of exposure-specific information by the camera. Each cassette has an identification number which cross-references from the number on an index print similar to those with Photo-CD. Each individual frame of the film is scanned and digitised to reproduce the index prints, which will also become available with standard 35mm film processing, making re-orders much easier.

What's on the APS film?

The APS cassette - size and status indicators

Film status indicators on the cassette indicate whether the film inside it is unexposed, partly exposed, fully exposed but unprocessed, or processed film (negatives) - cassettes being re-used for the storage of processed negatives. Gone is the handling of negatives. Users will never see the film - just as they never see the videotape in video cassettes. Simple drop-in film loading uses no leader extending from the cassette and prevents double exposed, fogged and blank rolls. All these facilities are designed to increase user satisfaction and confidence. For the first time, it will be easy to change a film in the middle of a roll - for example to a faster emulsion - though the use of this facility is somewhat limited by the probable unavailability of black and white and colour reversal stocks.

Comparative film sizes - displayed actual size on a 72ppi monitor.
35mm: 36x24mm, APS: 30.2x16.7mm, 110: 17x13mm and - dare we even mention it? - Disc: 10x8mm

The smaller film size will expose a frame of similar aspect ratio to 16:9 high definition and other widescreen television. The 16.7x30.2 frame is 1.8 to 1 ratio - wider than the existing 35mm format of 1.5 to 1. Three choices of print formats will be available: H(DTV) 1.8 to 1 giving 3.5x6 or 4x7 inch prints and using the full frame, C(lassic) 1.5 to 1 giving 3.5x5 or 4x6 inch prints and P(anoramic) 2.9 to 1 giving 3.5x10 or 4x11.5 inch prints. All expose the full frame area, recording the cropping data magnetically on the film to be used at the time of printing. You can change your mind for later re-orders. In the more distant future, a 'zoom' lens effect without moving lens elements will be achieved by recording variable cropping data to control selective enlargement during printing. All the prints have provision to carry two lines of forty characters printed on the back, carrying exposure information such as date, time and location. More advanced cameras will enable customised back-printing.

The index print makes re-ordering easy.

At present only 2% of negatives are reprinted or enlarged but even this modest percentage accounts for $7 billion of business each year. APS will make reprint orders much easier, with no more squinting at negatives, no more greasy fingerprints. If APS persuades more consumers to go for reprints, a one percent increase in this business would be worth $3.5 billion. Worth having?

You might ask why all this technology is not being applied to the existing 35mm format. To quote Agfa's Friedrich Hujer, that is "a good - but academic - question." The smaller frame size is bound to arouse anxiety for professional and advanced amateur users who remember the poor quality of some of the earlier 'wonder' formats. The APS frame area is 504 sq mm - just under two thirds of the area of a frame of 35mm - though it must be remembered that today's advanced 35mm emulsions have plenty of redundant information for the degree of enlargement they normally receive. Better news is that APS is over twice the area of 110 and over six times the area of the Disc format.

The smaller format means that a 'standard lens' - roughly equivalent to the diagonal of the format - will be 35mm. Many full-frame 35mm compact cameras sport 35mm wideangle lenses, the APS equivalent of these being 24mm. APS cameras will therefore be up to 25% smaller than their 35mm counterparts. A camera which fits into a shirt pocket without tugging at the stitching might just be the kind of sexy image recording device which people will always carry with them. When Boots in Wantage can do the processing in an hour, I'll buy one to carry with me around trade shows. Quality would be more than adequate for editorial pictures.

If APS takes off we will soon see other domestic products which link it to digital imaging, such as analogue scanners to 'project' negatives onto a tv set and digital scanners to enable images to be brought into home computers.

Locked inside its APS cassette, film will become invisible - almost irrelevant - to the user. It is reduced to a data storage medium - a great one at that. But when the tactile experience has gone the recording medium becomes irrelevant. One day someone will introduce an inexpensive consumer digital imaging system which does not need processing, can be viewed on a tv set and automates the production of full colour A4 prints on plain paper. Until that day, APS may be precisely the move from cost to value marketing which photography has been looking for. It brings film closer to the digital age and could give photography a higher priority on family budgets.

The big question now is will the commitment of the System Developing Companies and licensees be matched by the laboratories, photo dealers and public? For photography's sake, let's hope so.

This report first appeared as "John Henshall's Chip Shop" in "The Photographer" November 1995.
This document is Copyright © 1996 John Henshall. All rights reserved.
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